When “being religious” is a sickness

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke 13:10-17

One of the risks and temptations whenever one decides to practice their faith or religion is the temptation to adhere strictly to the rules and regulations without giving attention to the inner disposition. One of the things we learn from Our Lord, God and savior Jesus Christ is that outward observances don’t matter, in fact they are downright evil, when they do not transform those who practice them. We encounter just such a situation here.

We are told that there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity for 18 years. Think about that, 18 years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten up, or stand upright…for 18 years! When we have a minor cold for just a day or two we are ready to throw in the towel and give up on life, yet this faithful woman persisted in such a miserable state for nearly two decades. Perhaps we have been struggling with physical illness or even with our own sins and addictive behaviors. You may have been struggling for a long time, but don’t lose heart. God is present and He can make the crooked ways straight if we will only allow Him a chance to lay His hands upon us through the heartfelt practices of repentance and prayer. Nothing is impossible for God.

The Lord found this faithful woman in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. How do we know that she was faithful? Despite everything that had happened to her and the difficult hand that she had been dealt, she continued to come and to worship God. She didn’t blame God or grow impatient with Him. She didn’t give up on religion or choose to try her own form of spirituality. Even though it was not easy for her, she was devout and steadfast in her faith. It is within this context that the Lord Jesus Christ sees her at the synagogue. He was there teaching the people when He saw her and had great compassion on her.

This story points not only to the faithfulness of this woman but to the unfailing mercy of God. The Lord was busy teaching. He, the greatest teacher of the world, the greatest expounder of the Scriptures, stopped what He was doing (which was really important and excellent work) because He saw this woman’s pain and suffering and He wanted to heal her. We cannot help but thank God for the lesson for our lives. Even when we are doing good work, it is important to pause and help others when it is within our power to do so.

And now this woman who had struggled for all these years, was immediately healed by the hands of the one who fashioned the whole universe. This should be the end of the story. Everyone should see the miracle and rejoice and give glory to God for what has happened to this woman…but sadly this is not the case.

The ruler of the synagogue came up to the Lord Jesus and began to chastise Him and the woman who was healed. The ruler said “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” You know we ought to be careful how we speak to God, here we see a man who wants to correct the holy one of Israel. And yet we find that those who try to correct God are themselves swiftly corrected and judged. The Lord calls the man a hypocrite. Why was he a hypocrite? The Sabbath was meant to be a holy day that was free from work. Yet even on the day when the people were to refrain from work, they usually did things that were reasonable and necessary. For instance, if they had livestock or animals they untied them and lead them to water. That is work, but it would hardly be considered sinful to take care of the animals and make sure that they didn’t get sick or die. Yet the Lord brings to light this man’s hypocrisy because he wasn’t willing to extend this same mercy and compassion to another human being, even a fellow Jew.

The Lord continuously amazes us by His ability to pierce straight through the noise to the heart of the matter. He shows us that the one who is truly sick and truly infirm is not the one with a physical sickness but the one who lacked charity and mercy. The one who was truly sick was the one who couldn’t accept an act of God even when it happened right in front of his face. That is real sickness.

God wants us to follow His law, but not use it as a way to ignore the needs of others, or even worse, to judge the good and loving work that needs to be done. What good is our religious activity, what good is our strict adherence to rules and regulations (such as fasting), if these things do not make us merciful, gentle and loving with others? If all of our religious practices are merely outward they become worthless. Our works are supposed to be a powerful witness to God’s love in the world, and not a witness of cruelty or judgment towards others. God has saved us from dead works. We are free to serve the living God in truth and not just with outward motions, because we know Him and we are known by Him. May God continue the work of saving us from our inner death and our dead works and free us with the true liberty that comes from experiencing His mercy and truth. May He look on us and see our weaknesses and infirmities and lay His hands upon us and heal us all. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

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